The quest for the new and the undiscovered has driven mankind all through its existential evidence on the planet. At some point the discoveries and the load of knowledge going with them were categorized into different faculties such as science, arts, history and many more. Even the broader faculties had to be further sub-categorized into finer branches for the sheer need of it. So art was branched into literature, poetry, painting, music and so on. But it all came from the human mind which is probably the greatest unexplored arena in the living world. And more often than not, a gifted mind has been found to possess knowledge and depth, not just in one faculty, but even in a multiple layer of faculties and branches that probably combined to produce the work of genius in a particular branch.
Rabindranath Tagore, as we all know, was one such genius who shone in the brilliance of his verses and prose in the sort humane-span of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But, as we come to know, even Tagore the bard that he was, at one point of time in his life, had found words inadequate to express his emotions.
Tomba feared cinema’s microscopic vision. In retrospect, he can joke about it. Pic Ratan Luwangcha
That was the time the world was torn apart by the First World War. In many ways, the World War brought in what is probably the largest and the rapidest change in our civilization. It was the first war that was not area-specific. It was all-over and all-inclusive. It was the first war that was documented, not by officially appointed histories, but by common people from the warring nations who were forced to march to the trenches by their respective warlords. And these included artists…. Poets, painters, writers, musicians, who recorded the trauma and the sufferings of the war in their own ways. There was no way in which Tagore could keep himself aloof from the realities of the sufferings and misdoings that the World War had imposed upon the people world over. It was also then in the 1920s that Tagore had visited Europe, the epicenter of the war. The tragic fate of the some of his fellow artists had engraved a deep sorrow in him.
A masked rickshaw driver in Imphal. It is this mask cinema dismantles, often mercilessly. Pic Ratan Luwangcha
In his anguish of not having words to express the hatred for the war, the trauma and the compassion that felt for the sufferers, Tagore had taken to painting, the art of images, while he was in his ‘sixties’. It was also almost at the same time that he was introduced to cinema, both Indian cinema which was in its nascent stage and world cinema in its approximately twentieth year of commercialization.
Tomba with students critically appreciating a film. Pic Ratan Luwangcha
Rabindranath Tagore went to Russia on his tour of Europe in the early ‘20s and it was here that he saw parts of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin which is believed to be his first exposure to serious cinema, as we call it. Though, his comments on the film are not recorded. He had seen Indian cinema earlier and was not quite pleased with the representation of the then new-media. He expressed that cinema seemed to be a sycophant of literature and had therefore yet to be able to elevate itself as an independent art form. In a letter to Murari Bhaduri, in 1929, he further expressed: “Cinema has not been liberated from the slavery of literature which, though, is a difficult proposition as unlike literature, poetry, songs and painting, the ingredients of cinema come with a high monetary cost. But the main ingredient of cinema is pace and flow of images, the beauty of which should be manufactured such that it needs no words to express its idiom. It should have an independent language of its own just like music which can enchant in its own idiom without the support of any other language of words and sentences. Cinema doesn’t achieve that because it does not have a suitable creator…..”- These were his words on Indian cinema which reflects the deep understanding of the medium and a concern for its future as an art form.
In the 1920s, while on his visit to Europe, Tagore was invited to UFA Studios in for writing a cinema script. Tagore sat through an entire day in his hotel, writing a script in a ‘new technique’ than that of novels or even theatre. For, he strongly believed that the language of cinema is very different from literature of theatre, with its speed and moving images which just cannot be depicted in the same form as former. ‘The Child’ was, surprisingly, never made into a film. Probably no one tried to decipher its cinematic aspect which was far separated from the rush of Expressionist movement in cinema of that era or may be the World War itself was a cause for its neglect.
On different occasions, Tagore expressed his many views on cinema. At one time he liked cinema to be a scientific evidence to history or as an educational and ethical medium for the society while on another time he described cinema as the concept of beating time and space by covering a longer magnitude of both, nonlinearly, in a short span. He said that since man does not stand still, therefore cinema, is his best representation. The concept of frames intermingles, subtly over here and it goes further when he says that if beauty with pace is what cinema is about, then, to transform it into an art form, it can be culminated in the dance form rather that the plastic art that it is now.
He did, in fact, turn to dance-drama during this time. Chitrangada was staged amidst huge applause. (in the ‘40s’ and ‘50s’ Indian cinema, finally, started absorbing its identity through the Indian culture of dance and music and eventually Hollywood lost its foothold in the Indian market due to the rise of Indian Cinema, heavily bolded with musicals, a phenomenon not erasable till date). Also to note here is the fact of abstractness, almost synonymous to the images that he paints simultaneously. Tagore did not give a title to his paintings for he thought, again, that words would be an imposition of a language over the language of image itself – much like his statements on cinema.
Again, from the same person comes the following note:
“….. The contradictions that there is between the table of our sense perception and the table of our scientific knowledge has its common centre of reconciliation in human personality.
The same thing holds true in the realm of idea. In the scientific idea of the world there is no gap in the universal law of causality. Whatever happens could never have happened otherwise. This is a generalization that is made possible by a quality of logic which is possessed by the human mind. But this very mind of man has its immediate consciousness of will within him which is aware of its freedom and even struggles for it. Every day in most of our behaviour we acknowledge its truth. Thus this has its analogy in our daily behaviour with regard to a table. For whatever may be the conclusion that Science has unquestionably proved about the table, we are amply rewarded when we deal with it as a solid fact and never as a crowd of fluid elements that represent a certain kind of energy. We can also utilize this phenomenon of the measurement. The space represented by a needle when magnified by the microscope may cause us no anxiety as to the number of angels who could be accompanied on its points or camels which could walk through its eyes. In a cinema – picture our vision of time and space can be expanded or condensed merely according to the different technique of the instrument”.
As a practising film-maker landed in the land of Tagore, I had the physical access to North-East Region and kept on shooting documentaries and short fiction films for Films Division, Govt. of India. While primarily focusing on the narrative of the assignment, at hand, my job with Films Division helped me to collect images over the years from Manipur in particular. After the celluloid era, digital platform facilitated the magnification of a needle. When magnified by the microscope of mind and while memorialising, the same image emits a different meaning through our association of images in Covid times. The masked rickshaw-wallah was the trigger of my 2000 film ‘Wearing the face’ and as the same image distilled over a period of two decades, in a complete new narrative ‘Manipur Mindscapes’, contemporarises the film. I had used the memoir of actor Lamja Tomba only seeing the long scar on his face at Usha cinema screen while watching ‘Matamgi Manipur’, the first Manipuri film. He couldn’t concentrate on the film as he was so conscious of the magnified scar on his face. Memories and scars overlap each other into the magnetic field and thereby the echoes howl. It blurs both real time and screen time. It creates a new space as Mani Kaul used to put while a different singer elaborates the same Raaga within the same Kharana, in its rendering, it becomes new music.
So, the needle-head allows a creator today in documentaries and short fiction films alike, to expand or condense the narrative by re-imagining new narratives with the archives of self-archived images. India is a treasure-house for making the camels and angels pass through the needle–head, if we are able to take that artistic adventure of attempting forms of a ‘Resilient Cushioning’. Both are operative words-‘Resilience’ of the content and ‘Cushioning’ of the form.
(With creative inputs from Samik Bandhopadhyay)
Joshy Joseph is an award-winning film maker and writer